Tag: ear training
Can You Bring Two Things Out at Once? Guiding the Listener
An advanced student with superior musicianship said at their lesson “I want to hear this passage in a certain way and part of this way is to have certain things stand out in particular. However I can’t succeed bringing them out; or at least not just the things I want to bring out.”
Number one: you haven’t leveled the playing field so that the notes that you don’t want to bring out are uniformly softer than the notes you do want to bring out. The reason they are not so, is that often you have specific but varying desires as to how loud each of these ‘background’ notes should be. You are musical, so you have specific intentions regarding each stratum of what you are playing simultaneously.
Now, in piano playing it is generally very difficult to “bring out” two different things at once, because what you do to direct attention to one is occluded in the listener’s ear by what you are doing to pay attention to the other. “Too many cooks spoil …” It is not impossible to succeed in having the listener be more aware of two things at once, when there are more than two things to choose from – it’s just very difficult. If the ‘things’ we are talking about are individual voices amid tonal polyphony, then succeeding relies less on different (or similar) degrees of loudness assigned to each of two voices. Then, it is a matter of lending an individual character to each of the two voices.
The safer course is to prioritize only one among the things you want to bring out and always direct the listener’s ear in that direction. The listener needs a clear road map as to what to listen to. The most reliable course is keeping all but the desired voice in the shade.
P.S. Once, at a masterclass, someone was playing the development section of the first movement of the Brahms second piano sonata (Op. 2). Her listeners were confused as to what was going on to the music. I asked her to explain in words ‘what was going on in the piece at that point’. She gave a brilliant verbal analysis. I then asked her whether she thought her listeners were hearing (or “getting”) all the things she just described. She assumed the answer was that they did. The listeners objected that they did not, and had no idea that the things she had mentioned were actually happening. “But they are so obvious,” she said.
Then I proposed a new tactic. Pretend the listeners are in a state of perfect nescience, or ideal ignorance. Unless you go out of your way to point something out to them, to exaggerate it, they will not recognize that that thing is happening (they will not recognize for instance that there is a series of sevenths each resolving to a sixth according to a standard species of counterpoint). So she went into the modality of lecturing about the music by playing it. Now her listeners all said, “We hear it now; we get what is going on in this development section.”
The conclusion is that sometimes, no matter the quality of the audience, sometimes you have to play things as if you are saying: “What don’t you get! Don’t you hear these things that are happening in the music?! Can I make it any more obvious? I’m already exaggerating it as it is.”
Shaping an Ostinato-like Section of Repeated Groups of Four Sixteenth Notes
S.E.’s lesson on 9/7/19: Rachmaninoff 3rd concerto. first movement: when the endless sixteenths begin after the first statement of the main theme.
There is a lot of “interlacing” of the hands. I don’t mean simultaneous interlacing, I mean within four consecutive sixteenths some may be with the left hand some may be with the right hand.
This requires laying down a foundation of groups of four clearly stated sixteenths, whose musical contour, crescendo and decrescendo, is always sculpted the same regardless of what the notes are and which hands are playing particular notes. I spoke the words “one two three four” monotonously, over and over, as S. played through the passage. This should be done prior to any attempt at phrasing. The one of the four should always sound like the first of a group of four. The two of the four should always sound the second of a group of four. Etc.. This establishes first an unyielding base, over which the more musical details can then flicker and modulate.
While doing this first phase it was noticeable to me exactly where his playing of a sixteenth note was not exactly together with my count. At today’s session, this took place mostly with the placement of the two following upon the one, of the four sixteenth note groups.
As a way of ‘shading’ from the first stage (mechanically and
metronomically) to stage two, where music ideas played over that surface of rigid evenness, I started counting, not mechanically or in an uninvolved or apathetic tone of voice, as if it were my job, or duty, simply to count evenly, but with shaping, phrasing and expressivity in my voice. I made this transition without abandoning the syllables “one”, “two”, “three”, “four”. I “rounded” each spoken four note group into a resonant, glittering shape. But rather than shape the phrase in response to inner meaning of each group of pitches, I was more at using a “one size fits all” (one shape fits all) method. My voice was full of emotional expression but it was as if each time I repeated the four syllables, it was less a repeat, but more at an attempt to perfect one, constant, musical shape.
Stage three is to let the two meanings blend, the more idealized emotional and structural content of each perfectly shaped group of four, and how each group different from the others in terms of musical meaning when one added the specific pitches Rachmaninoff chose. The most convenient analogy for what the result is, is seeing an early Italian Renaissance painting by a master, in which the body, for instance of the Virgin, is fully clothed, but the folds of the drapery of the clothes perfectly intimate the shape of the body beneath it.
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Flow, Versus a Sequence of Separate Notes
H.P’s lesson on 8/13/19 Menuet from Ravel: Tombeau de Couperin
Joe: “Our recent work has focused on flow versus the pointillism of
notes. As we go on today, let’s use two very restricted definitions of
these two terms, ‘Notes’ will simply mean knowing what notes to play
at the next moment and ‘flow’ will simply mean getting to those notes
from the preceding notes without even the most minimal of hesitation.
For many pianists it is a long held view that they must master the
“notes” before attempting the musical qualities of the piece, the
latter of which includes the manner of flow of the sounds through
Depending on the student I have been known to reject this premise on the ground that unless the musical qualities of a piece enter into our intuition of the piece at the beginning of the learning process, by the time the pianist masters the notes, the musical characteristics of the piece have suffered from neglect to the point that it is now hard to install or instill this musicality into the slow setting cement of the notes only.
What I am pleased to notice is how lately you have been working from “both ends at once,” gains in note accuracy are bootstrapping gains in musical flow, while at the same time working for the flow is bootstrapping note accuracy. You have found a way to working simultaneously for both goals, and thereby leaving the question of “which came first, the music or the notes”, into the category of similar questions like “which came first the chicken or the egg.”
About a third of the way into the lesson we focused on the middle section of the movement and in particular who to connect one chord with another without any break in the flow of the sound. Joe: “we must make ourselves take responsibility for never allowing any a break in the sound flow. What I am hearing when you play this passage are periodic, brief hesitations before continuing on to the next chord.. You seem to exert a lot of focus and energy on playing a group of chords with good continuity of sound, but then need to take a pause to recharge your batteries. It is as if to say: “I’ve been working very hard, physically and mentally, through these last few chords, I need a break.”
When we take that pause, we push the question of the flow temporarily out of our consciousness and awareness. We do not notice that we are pausing. It exists in a momentary blind (sic) spot brought on by fatigue. The question is whether the listener hears the pause, notices that we are momentarily clinging to the current notes before going on to the next notes.
The answer is that they always know though in different ways and to different conscious degrees. Some not only hear the pause but are upset at the application of the brakes to the flow, and have a difficulty in reestablishing their attention afterwards. For others the reaction is more subconscious. For some reason, of which they are not aware, there is a slackening in their attention to the music, which just happens to occur at the same point in the score where the pianist has broken the flow. For some the reaction is even less actively conscious. They will not notice the hesitation in any way as it happens, but further on in the piece they notice that their emotional reaction to the music has taken a negative turn. They will ascribe this to either the piece itself, or their inability to listen sensitively to the music.
The pianist’s ears must always be on “sentry duty”, otherwise it increases the likelihood that they will not notice deviations from the constancy of the sound flow. When this happens the sound flow can become distorted. knowing and being on alert is the best way to prevent something happening in the first place.
Some necessary connections will always seem un-doable to us; just beyond the realm of the possible, as will some of the chord connections in this middle section. Without going into the specific physical procedures to make these connections easy (something which usually forms a large segment of my teaching), it may be enough simply to say to yourself “I must do this”, “there is no option but that it has to happen smoothly”. And if we leave ourselves no way out, the body discovers the solution for itself, without conscious awareness by us of the how. Most of us when practicing a difficult group of notes will suddenly play it once the way we want it to sound. We also have experienced that trying to repeat this success often fails. We don’t learn the right way through repetition. Nonetheless we should pause after the successful rendition and absorb the very important fact that we are capable of doing it. It may be too early in the learning process to be able to reproduce it whenever we want. The one success is enough, however, to open the path to a confident discovery of the recipe for the solution. I can try to accelerate this progress by explaining or demonstrating to the pianist what things were happening physically when it came out correctly. The problem with any explanation though is that regardless of the teacher, some part of the solution remains unconscious to that particular teacher, and is therefore left out of the explanation.
A timely aside:
There is a peculiar blending of time tenses that occurs when we try to maintain the flow of the sound through obstacles in its path. When we are about to play a challenging connection, we should, at the same moment, already be hearing that connection happening, and furthermore, evaluating whether it happened without any signs of interruption. Looking at this a little more closely, the present tense is transmuted, in part, to the past tense (if our imagination is already hearing it). The immediate future is prematurely transmuted into part of the present tense. And the somewhat less immediate future (as we evaluate or notice that it flowed well) is made part of a bloated present tense. Beyond this I can only say that this weird stew of time tenses it is one of the fundamental mysteries of time in the consciousness of the performing musician.
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Deciding What is Controllable. Also: Transforming the Polyphony of a Gugue
Well Tempered Klavier, Book I, C Major, Prelude
After finishing the piece I simply asked A.B. what he liked and disliked about his rendition. He mentioned several negative things and then struck on the one thing that I had primarily noticed: that he stopped the harmonic flow of the piece every time he went from the end of one measure to the beginning of the next. I missed sensing that inexorable connection that energetically pushed me from the chord in one measure to the chord in the next measure.
He said that he had previously tried condensing the piece into a chorale of whole-note chords (each chord took the place of one measure). However, he had trouble because he couldn’t do it with any speed. I said that the speed was of the essence of the procedure. Ideally, each eighth note’s worth of the piece, in terms of its duration, became the duration of one of the chords of the chorale.
Since it was difficult to shift chords that quickly, I recommended to him that he play just the chord a single measure followed by the chord of the next measure, and then stop. I asked him to play the first chord as if it were a grace note going to the second chord – the latter being held longer.
This he could do. We repeated the process for each measure going into its next measure.
Now that we had merged two amino acids into a somewhat longer chain of molecules, I asked him to play as written, while I, in the higher treble, waited until he was near the end , but not at the very end, of one measure only then played the chord of that measure as a grace note followed the next measure’s chord. Only I would get to the second chord before he finished playing the current measure. That anticipation of my chord connection gave him the necessary push and energy to keep the piece’s harmonic flow going across the bar line. Then I would remain silent at the second piano until he reached nearly to the end of the new measure at which point I would break in with the chord of the new ‘current’ measure played as a grace note to the chord that governed the measure that was about to start. And so on.
A.B. remained worried in particular that the pinkie sixteenth note in the right hand at the end of each measure does not connect smoothly to the next sixteenth note in the left hand at the beginning of the next measure.
His default solution was to figure out exactly how he wants his pinkie to play that note. I solved his issue by stepping entirely around his approach. As he played the piece I sang “la la la…”, but starting with 6th 7th and 8th sixteenth notes of one measure and ended with the fifth sixteenth note of the next measure. on notes to the first note. I then waited too the 6th note of the new measure and began the process of again singing along for 3 + 5 or 8 notes.
In the form I was singing it, with the way I was grouping the notes that I sung versus those I did not sing, I purposely glossing over the connection between the two notes on either side of the bar lines.. It happens automatically. By spreading a solder, or flux over the end of one measure and the beginning of the next, I effectively made less important the connection of the bar line.
I noticed in my singing that I helped things along by making misplaced crescendo starting on my first note and ending towards the eighth note. This helped smooth over A.B.’s faulty connection over the bar line.
At this point we moved on to the fugue: transforming the polyphony of a
fugue in C Major, Book One, Well Tempered:
A.B.: why do I find it so difficult to not hold a voice note longer than it is supposed to last, when the note is already meant to continue sounding through a certain number of the next notes in some of the other voices. For example if the target voice is a quarter note, or longer, and the other voices are enunciating sixteenth notes.
I gave a brief answer: remembering when to lift a sustained note in one voice is the requires the opposite of everything you do right when knowing when to start a note. It’s the “dark side” of piano technique: it requires doing everything the wrong way; or is it now the right way?
A.B.: why did you do that? Why was it working?
Joe: I think it is important to have a distinct pre-vision, pre-conception, of what the beginning of the next measure is going to sound like before you get to it. It is a strange balance of knowing what’s coming and still being surprised by it.
Can we transform the sound the sound of the fugue in the student’s ear?
We experimented using two pianos with re-registering one of the voice of the fugue. He would choose one voice to play, and transpose either an octave higher or lower than it was written, while I played the remaining three voices (without the fourth) at the other piano.
Results: A.B. said:
My voice sounded different than before. I head it saying and meaning other other things than I had before, but then realizing that it was the same voice with the same names to its notes, just transposed, and that there was at the same time an abiding identity between both versions of the voice, an identity which was preserved, was eternal and fixed and was impervious to change of octave. The new stuff that suddenly I heard, in how that voice combined with the other voices, must have been there latent to the note’s names themselves alone, or to say it in another way were just as present as aesthetic and sonic effects when I played that voice in its original octave.
In the future we will have A.B. play just one voice, but in the octave higher than written and the octave lower than written without playing it in the octave is written. Later again we can transpose one voice by more than one octave. If it is the soprano voice we can have it sound in the tenor voice’s range or even below the bass voice. In the case of the bass voice, we can have it sound in the alto voice’s range or so that it is the highest sounding of all the voices. At any time I can choose to play all four voices and not just three, leaving one voice to him. Or, he can choose at random to play just the voices, while I play the other two. Or, three voices.
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When it’s difficult to get from one chord to another
Sorry to have been out of touch for the past two weeks. I had cataract surgery and was waiting for my eyes to be able to read the computer screen again. Anyway, I’m fine now, and the hiatus is over. But please excuse typos and misspellings.
Consider the situation when we try to connect one chord to another chord, but the second chord is a difficult to get to from the first chord, we can do the following. The solution ultimately lies in not going from one chord to to a second. We have to break down this apparent cause and effect within time. Order in time need not dictate to our imagination order in which our body does things.
We let the hand get used to the second chord before playing the first chord. We play the second a series of times. After the first time we move the hand just a little bit away from the keyboard and then find the chord again. Then we can move the hand right (and then left) along the keyboard, horizontally away from the chord, in gradually increasing distances, and each time find your way spontaneously, without thought, without set-up, to the second chord as if you were already on it. Eventually your hand ‘remembers’ what that chord feels like, and can return to it from any place at all on or off the keyboard; from any position in all three dimensions that the hand can first be removed to, including for instance from your lap. Of all these infinite places and positions from which the hand might come to return to that chord, just one such possibility is that the hand is first on the chord that is written first.
Memory is like a glue that adheres to a chord like a familiar friend. Benefiting from this fact, we just have to add in a trick with time. Instead of the ‘first’ chord being followed by the ‘second’ chord, the second chord is there before the first chord. we must feel that he have already been there, that the glue of the memory causes our hand to automatically be on the notes of the second chord. I don’t so much mean that because we have practiced the passage, we get ‘used to’ where the second chord lies. No, this is different. This is truly being convinced that you are about to do two totally new things, for the very first time, and yet in spite of that, you act like you already know have been where the second is on the keyboard, tactilely, coverage-wise and finger-wise.